Teesta project: Is there no alternative for Bangladesh without China-India?

China proposed a project for Bangladesh to manage the Teesta River. Recently, news of a similar proposal from India came to the media. What is in the Teesta River management proposal? Will there be any permanent solution to the Teesta River problems? What should Bangladesh do in light of the current economic situation? This article tries to find answers to those questions.

Recently, during the two-day visit of the Indian Foreign Secretary to Bangladesh, the Teesta issue came up for discussion again. Ahead of his visit, a report published in India’s influential daily The Hindu said that China’s project on the Teesta in Bangladesh is of concern to India. This is due to its proximity to the strategically important Siliguri Corridor and North Eastern states. To explain the background of this project it is further noted that India has failed to complete the Teesta Water Sharing Agreement; Which has increased Dhaka’s impatience about the future of river-related activities. (Yugantar, May 8, 2024)

It is evident from the situation that one of the objectives of the secretary’s visit was to stop Bangladesh from participating in the Chinese project on Teesta. Indeed, during the visit, the Indian Secretary suggested that India should finance the Teesta project. This proposal can be described as an attempt to ‘exclude China and implement the Chinese plan’.

Since 2016, ‘Power-China’ has been discussing a plan on Teesta. Before Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Dhaka that year, ‘Power-China’ formulated a project called ‘Sustainable River Management Programme’, including all major rivers of Bangladesh.

The Yamuna River was the program’s initial focus. But later on, at the request of Bangladesh Water Development Board, it also included the Teesta River in it. As a follow-up, “Power-China” developed the “Tista River Comprehensive Management and Restoration Project” with a budget of approximately $1 billion.

From the very beginning, it appears that the Bangladesh government has adopted a strict ‘policy of confidentiality’ regarding this project. As the representative of the people, the government secures loans for such projects, which the people are ultimately responsible for repaying. So why people are unable to learn about this project and express their opinions is not understandable.

Unfortunately, the government did not accept it; Rather, India is being given access to transit, transshipment, ports and waterways free of charge. As a result, Bangladesh’s demand from India has decreased. Despite this, India must make every effort to realize Bangladesh’s rights recognized by the UN Charter of 1997 over common rivers.

The situation is even more ironic because ‘Power-China’ has created videos about the project and is promoting it globally through YouTube. As a result, foreign companies, rather than their own government, are informing the people of Bangladesh about a project in their own country.

However, investigative journalists in Bangladesh managed to gather some information about the project, such as the project’s Preliminary Development Project Proposal (PDPP). We now have a rough idea of ​​the project in the light of information from other sources including the initial development project proposal and the ‘Power-China’ video.

He holds the position of a Professor of Geology at the Commonwealth University of the United States. Khalekuzzaman has done some research based on these data. In light of available data and research, I presented a detailed discussion about the Teesta Master Plan in two recently published books. The two books are Water Development in Bangladesh: The Current Crisis and Alternative Pathways Proposal (2023) and Water Development in Bangladesh: Past, Present and Future (2022). Both books describe alternative strategies for developing the Teesta basin.

From the data and research, we see that the main proposal of the Chinese project is to reduce the average width of the Teesta River from the present about 3 kilometers to zero decimal 816 meters (ie 0.272 or about one-fourth). As a result, around 171 square kilometers of riverbed land will be reclaimed and used for urbanisation, the setting up of solar power projects, agricultural development and settlement.

The project also states that the depth of Teesta will be increased (ie doubled) from the current 5 meters to 10 meters through excavation. We anticipate that this will enhance Teesta’s navigability. The project also proposes to construct several jetties, ports and roads.

It is clear from the name that Power-China company’s core business is power generation. This company is a contractor for the construction of several power generation plants in Bangladesh. It is unclear when, how and to what extent this company acquired expertise in river management.

What is important is that Bangladesh’s rivers cannot be compared to those of any other country in the world due to the large amount of water and sediment flow and extreme seasonality. The International Engineering Company (IEC), based in San Francisco, prepared a master plan in 1964 that the governments of Bangladesh followed, but due to a lack of understanding, it has caused harm to Bangladesh’s rivers instead of benefiting them.

Since the Middle Ages, China has struggled to manage the Huang Ho (Yellow River). This river’s annual water flow is only 56 cubic kilometers. It is about one-tenth of the Brahmaputra and one-seventh of the Ganges. Moreover, the seasonality of rivers in China is not comparable to that in Bangladesh. As a result, China’s experience managing Bangladesh’s rivers is irrelevant and inappropriate, just like in western countries.

Against such a backdrop it is not surprising that Power-China has proposed an ‘alarming’ project for the Teesta River. Obviously doubling the depth by one-fourth the width of the river would halve the cross-section and double the velocity if the volume of flow remained unchanged. As a result, bank erosion will intensify in the Teesta’s sandy basin and the embankments built on the banks of the river will not be able to survive.

Teesta brings about five crore tons of silt every year. As a result, siltation will rapidly reduce the depth of Teesta’s excavations. Then the problem of bank erosion will be more acute. Moreover, with a severely reduced cross-section, the Teesta will find it more difficult to contain the excess flow of monsoons and flash floods.

The point is, the Teesta project of ‘Power-China’ will not provide any lasting solution to the Teesta river problems. In such a situation, it will not be appropriate for Bangladesh to proceed with this Chinese project.